To grasp the idea of a sweeper-keeper on a soccer field, picture Wild goaltender Devyn Dubnyk stopping shots at the top of the faceoff circles or firing outlet passes from just inside the blue line.
Minnesota United FC is developing two such players this season in newcomer Sammy Ndjock and four-year veteran Mitch Hildebrandt. They are goalkeepers who don’t keep to the goal line, relying on anticipation and foot speed to attack opponents teams rather than wait to defend.
The advantage is getting more players further up the field to better create and sustain offensive pressure. The downside is getting out of position and conceding goals.
Through four matches this season, the Loons’ new style is playing to mixed reviews. Minnesota’s four goals scored ties for fewest in the 11-team North American Soccer League. And while the Loons’ five goals allowed are fewer than all but three NASL teams, one of them came on a 65-yard free kick with Ndjock out of position.
Trouble at both ends leaves Minnesota (0-1-3) virtually out of contention for the 10-game spring season title it won in 2014. The Loons are one of two NASL teams without a victory.
They will start Ndjock in goal against Atlanta at 7 p.m. Saturday at Blaine’s National Sports Center Stadium. Ndjock, who joined the team this season after stints in Turkey and with the Cameroon national team, started the first three matches. Hildebrandt, a backup for his first three seasons with Minnesota, got the nod last week at Edmonton.
Both goalies can play the sweeper-keeper style, said Paul O’Connor, their position coach. He credited them with possessing quick feet and the ability to recover. O’Connor said he is “trying to get them more aggressive with voice and communication” to organize defenders.
“We’re trying to get the back line to play higher,” O’Connor said. “We’re trying to get both goalkeepers to play that style. But the sweeper-keeper has to be within you. You have to be comfortable with your feet. Playing sweeper-keeper is very difficult.”
Ndjock and Hildebrandt represent a change at their position. Former keeper Matt VanOekel and his predecessor Joe Warren, who helped the former NSC Stars win the league championship in 2011, were effective monoliths in goal.
“The position is changing,” Hildebrandt said. “If you look at young goalkeepers all around, their starting spot is way higher up than where I started when I was 11 or 12 years old. They are teaching them to be more aggressive but with that comes responsibility. When goalkeepers come out, sometimes they get exposed.”
Ndjock raced to grab a ball at the top of the 18-yard box at Ottawa but touched it too soon. The resulting handball gave the Fury a dangerous free kick, which he dived to save.
His most exasperating moment, as far as fans were concerned, came in the home opener, when a San Antonio free kick from about 65 yards sailed over Ndjock’s head. He admitted he was “not 100 percent” expecting a shot.
Hildebrandt started the next match at Edmonton. O’Connor said the long goal didn’t prompt the switch.
Hildebrandt has experienced his own difficulties. O’Connor said Hildebrandt struggled to communicate with his defenders on Edmonton’s second goal.
O’Connor said the switcheroo changed nothing in training this week. Hildebrandt and Ndjock each donned all-green kits and leapt, lurched and lunged at teammates’ shots with an eye on improving and securing the starting job.
“The next game will be different,” Ndjock said. “I can do many things.”